An external audit of the Burbank Police Department commends many of the force’s policies and reforms, though it also suggests improvements to some of its administrative practices.
One of those suggestions, recommending that the department not allow officers to review body camera footage before being interviewed in use-of-force investigations, was already declined by the department — a point of concern to several residents who called during the Tuesday joint meeting of the City Council and Police Commission.
The Office of Independent Review Group analysis of incidents in 2018 praised the BPD’s reforms over the past several years, highlighting the department’s commitment to investigating whenever racial bias is alleged against its personnel, even if the allegation is not at the root of the complaint.
The company also reviewed 20 use-of-force cases as part of its audit. In each case, the BPD determined its officers’ “actions were determined to be consistent with policy,” a conclusion with which the OIR Group agreed.
The group also commended the BPD for looking into even minor incidents and giving officers suggestions on how to lessen their uses of force.
“We feel like your department is, in a lot of ways, doing things very well,” said Stephen Connolly, an OIR Group representative, during Tuesday’s meeting. “As [Chief Scott LaChasse] was saying, it’s all about continuous improvement.”
BODY CAMS DISCUSSED
One of the more contentious issues during Tuesday’s meeting was that of recordings. OIR Group pointed out that one officer had failed to activate his audio device multiple times.
In those episodes, according to the audit, the response from department supervisors was “generally lacking,” with only one of the officer’s six cases being met with discipline.
In a written response to the recommendations, the BPD said it implemented body-worn cameras in 2019, after the audit period. The cameras automatically record in certain situations, such as when a handgun is unholstered or a vehicle’s light bar is turned on. The BPD also said it has a 97.4% compliance rate.
However, the BPD disagreed with the audit’s recommendation that officers be prevented from viewing their body camera footage before being interviewed for a use-of-force or misconduct investigation. The department decided not to adopt that recommendation, with the local police union — the Burbank Police Officers’ Association — having lobbied against the proposal.
Lt. J.J. Puglisi, president of the union, explained that he was concerned some might accuse officers of lying if they misremembered the facts of an incident because they didn’t watch the camera footage.
“From the union’s perspective, until there’s a societal change in that mindset [toward officers] and police officers are given the same grace that are given to other human beings in our society in terms of being involved in a traumatic incident … then our position is going to remain,” he said during the meeting.
OIR Group disagreed, writing in its audit that “the policy adopted by the BPD significantly undermines the usefulness of the body camera deployment.” The concern, the company’s Michael Gennaco told council members, is that seeing the video would cause officers to doubt their own experience of the event.
Some residents agreed, with Heather Rabb saying during public comment that, “We don’t want this oversight so we can latch onto small discrepancies. We want it because our community has poured millions of dollars into body cameras only to have policies in place that continue to reinforce the biases they’re intended to remedy.”
Puglisi later told The Leader by phone that the union supports body cameras, but that he has heard reports of potential legislation that would punish officers whose accounts differed from cam footage. He also expressed concerns that prosecutors would pressure officers into changing their accounts.
Another issue that arose frequently during Tuesday’s joint meeting was residents’ differing accounts of racism in Burbank. Some of the nearly 30 callers shared personal stories of negative encounters with the police, while others said that they had had only positive experiences with the BPD.
“What a horrible time it is to be a police officer,” said Juan Guillen, who asked the City Council to oppose any call to defund the department.
But some who called in were frustrated that some commissioners had said at a recent Police Commission meeting that they didn’t believe systemic racism was an issue in Burbank.
“There’s a lot of good happening,” Margo Rowder said in a phone call during the meeting. “A lot of us are not anti-police, but if you’ll notice the people who are, there’s a reason for that — they’re being mistreated.”
Carmenita Helligar, a 15-year resident who is Black, told council members and commissioners that her family had experienced racism in Burbank. She explained that once, when her son was visiting from college, she received a call that he had been surrounded by officers with weapons drawn. One officer ordered him not to move, while another told him to show them his ID.
Helligar said she ran in her pajamas to stand between the officers and her son — and told them to shoot her first.
“How many white mothers in Burbank have had to do something like that?” she asked. She said she was later told that her son “fit a description.”
Sgt. Derek Green, a department spokesman, said he was unable to confirm the incident or provide additional details, as Helligar had not mentioned a date or location.
But though she said her husband and 2-year-old have also had the police called on them, Helligar added that she hopes a path to unity can be found.
“It doesn’t have to be my way or yours,” she said. “If we work together, if we listen, if we respect one another, we can find the ‘and.’ Burbank can have a police force and have people who care and treat everyone with respect. …
“You don’t have to throw away anyone else’s experiences, especially not your own, but please add mine.”
Several of the residents also called on the police to collect and publish data on stops, including those that do not lead to arrests, broken down by race. The Racial and Identity Profiling Act started requiring larger agencies in California to collect and report that information, but most departments, including the BPD, don’t have to report the data until April 1, 2023.
LaChasse said that the department is moving toward that requirement, but has to update its computer systems in order to process the data.
“We are here to make change where change is warranted, so we take all this very seriously,” he said.